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Immigrant Assimilation Examined in US Congress

President Bush has repeated a call for an overhaul of America's immigration system. His plan seeks to boost U.S. border security, crack down on hiring undocumented workers, create a guest worker program, provide a path to legal status for millions of illegal aliens, and promote cultural and linguistic assimilation of newcomers. The last component - the integration of immigrants - was the focus of a congressional hearing Wednesday that found sharply diverging views on whether today's new arrivals are assimilating as quickly and willingly as did immigrants from decades and centuries past. VOA's Michael Bowman reports from Washington.

It is a national motto dating back to America's founding: "E Pluribus Unum" - "From Many, One." Is the United States is living up to that ideal, or is it becoming culturally balkanized between native-born citizens and ever-growing pockets of immigrants with little or no ambition to join the mainstream of U.S. society? That question is having a direct impact on the contentious immigration debate.

Speaking at a hearing of the House Judiciary Subcommittee on Immigration and Citizenship, Republican Representative Steve King of Iowa voiced concern that immigrant assimilation - and their allegiance to the United States - is waning.

"We need to refocus our priorities on helping those who are here legally embrace their new country by emphasizing the rapid learning of our common language of English, by instilling core American values, the ideals of our constitutional republic, and by ensuring immigrants' loyalty to America and not to the country they came from," he said.

King cited recent immigrant marches in U.S. cities where participants waved flags from other nations as one sign of a larger threat to America's cultural foundation.

Others have noted America's evolution towards bilingualism, with both English and Spanish appearing on government documents, voting pamphlets, and the labels of a growing number of consumer products.

It has been pointed out that, in the past, the United States received large waves of immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, China and elsewhere, yet the use of English was never challenged as it is today.

The concern is overblown, according to Cuban-born sociologist Ruben Rumbaut of the University of California at Irvine.

"The process of linguistic assimilation to English today is occurring perhaps more quickly than ever in U.S. history," said Rumbaut. "In fact, the United States has been described as a language graveyard because of its historical ability to absorb millions of immigrants and to extinguish their mother-tongues within a few generations."

"English proficiency has always been a key to socio-economic mobility for immigrants and to their full participation in their adoptive society. The last person you need to tell that to is an immigrant," he added.

And what of the belief that previous generations of immigrants assimilated eagerly and rapidly, while today's newcomers resist doing so? That is a myth, according to historian Gary Gerstle of Vanderbuilt University, who also testified before the subcommittee.

"The integration process of earlier immigrants, especially the 20-plus million who came from Eastern and Southern Europe from 1880 to 1920, has been mythologized as quick, easy, and unproblematic," he said.

"In fact, these immigrants were widely regarded then, as many are regarded today, as radically different in culture and values from Americans, and as lacking the desire and ability to integrate themselves into American society. Their integration would ultimately be an outstanding success, but it took about 50 years," he continued.

Addressing other members of the subcommittee, Democratic Congressman Luis Gutierrez of Illinois, who was born in Puerto Rico, said he is living proof that Spanish-speaking parents can raise English-speaking children.

"I share this with my colleagues on the other side [Republicans] to say, 'fear not." My parents only spoke Spanish. I obviously have some English proficiency that has allowed me to come here to the Congress of the United States," said Gutierrez.

And yet some trends have changed. A recent study found that, while more than 75 percent of legal immigrants in the 1970s sought U.S. citizenship, fewer than 25 percent do so today.

Does that mean that today's newcomers are less willing to formally declare their allegiance to the United States? And if so, does that mean that U.S. citizenship is less valued, or that immigrants face barriers and deterrents to pursuing the citizenship process?

Sociologist Ruben Rumbaut noted that, for full assimilation to take place, immigrants must truly want to integrate themselves and, at the same time, the broader society must welcome and embrace them. President Bush has said that the United States must remain a welcoming nation to newcomers, even as illegal immigration is deterred.

For now, it would appear that finding the right mix of policies to accomplish those dual goals remains a challenge as immigration reform is debated in Washington and across the country.